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Freedom Stories: Reflections on the refugee experience in Australia

Allan Tanoemarga

Tue Jul 21 2015

Titanic Mural

“STOP the boat people” is often heard but have we ever considered the voices of those at the very heart of the matter? Allan Tanoemarga reflects on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in their search of a new home as featured in the new documentary, Freedom Stories

In my 22 years of living, I admit I’ve never truly known how it feels to have no place called home to return to.

As an international student, having to leave behind my home and everyone I cared for to study in a foreign country didn’t seem too bad. I knew that no matter what my situation would look like in Australia, I could rest assured knowing I always had a true home to come back to and that there really wasn’t much that would stop me from doing so.

For many others who are less fortunate than me, returning to the country they called home is not as feasible an option.

International students will have no doubt encountered news of Australia’s relationship with asylum seekers and refugees in some form or manner during their studies — be it a glancing headline on their Facebook feed or through the numerous demonstrations and protests held in the city.

Discussion of asylum seekers and refugees is contentious in Australia, to say the least, as issues in relation to these groups have become increasingly dire in the Australian socio-political sphere with each passing year.

In recent decades, an increasing number of reports have established that more and more people from various parts of the world have tried to seek refuge in Australia, especially by boat. Many leave their home for fear of persecution over who they are or who they pray to.

Responding to this concern, the Australian Government has consequently implemented policies to either “stop the boats” or deter them from coming at all. One such policy includes indefinite mandatory detention, where asylum seekers can be detained for an undefined period of time in a detention centre until they are granted a visa.

Policies such as this have done little to curry favour with many Australians and major human rights organisations. Amnesty International has criticised the Government’s indefinite detention policy in the past and labelled it “inefficient, ineffective, inhumane and in many cases in violation of international human rights law”.

Suffering from a lack of uncertainty and the widely rumoured poor treatment, detainees have a very high risk of falling into depression which only worsens the longer they stay in detention.

Sadly for a few of them, suicide is often the easy way out.

For me, the refugee experience as described by so many of those who have seen the ugly side of indefinite detention is simply unjust — I could never imagine all the pressures asylum seekers would have to bear to survive.

And perhaps it was this strong empathy that attracted me to Freedom Stories, a new documentary from filmmaker Steve Thomas.

Freedom Stories reveals the hardships, resilience and eventual achievements of former asylum seekers — now Australian citizens — from the Middle East who arrived in Australia by boat in 2001. All of them were first detained in remote places such as Woomera and Nauru for different periods of time and at different ages. All of them have heart-rending stories to tell.

Sheri Shoari, a single mother, and her three sons, fled Iran and were kept under detention for up to three years before finally settling in Adelaide. As the film discloses, those three years were more than enough to provoke serious psychological distress amongst the two children, Hamid and Mohammad.

Upon their release to the Australian community, Hamid admitted he was constantly fueled with anger whereas Mohammad felt “nothing” and chose to distance himself from the public. There was barely anything that their mother Sheri could do, as she herself was also finding ways to fit in with the new environment.

Amidst the furore of public debate around refugees and asylum seekers, it is regrettably the voice of these people — those at the heart of the issue — that often remains forgotten. They are facing their own battles, while others outside the loop are busy arguing over who has the right opinion.

I think this is where the beauty of Freedom Stories comes in. It’s a first-hand account of what these people experienced in the detention centre and the new land they were settling in.

The subjects of the film have control over every inch of information they want people to know and information they want to keep for themselves. The result is a documentary that doesn’t come off as a dramatisation of the problem and is thus genuine and touching at the same time.

Despite its heavy subject matter, the film is not without its upbeat moments. In the film, Sheri and her family, who after a long period of acclimation, manage to bounce back from the past and find new happiness in their new home. Sheri, surprisingly is a huge fan of big trucks and is revealed to have been halfway through completing her heavy vehicle licence by the end of filming. Meanwhile, her sons Hamid and Mohammad found new refuge in playing football and learning philosophy respectively.

Sheri and her family are also joined by other former asylum seekers in the film, each with their own inspiring and unique tale. Freedom Stories frequently reminds us that asylum seekers are not only among us but are very much human and it would thus be wrong to treat them differently, just because they were born and lived in unfortunate circumstances.

Amir Javan & Parviz Avesta

Amir Javan and Parviz Avesta, former asylum seekers who are now friends for life. Image supplied.

After seeing the film and reflecting on the issue, my mind started to wonder: as an international student in Australia, what can we do to help out these people? While we are not (yet) Australians and certainly don’t hold sway over Australian politics, should this mean we just sit on the issue, weep and sympathise?

I guess that’s one way to do it, but I want to believe that we can actually do more.

The power of words is stronger than we think, and with the prevalence of social media nowadays, we can always create some buzz around these issues and combat any misconceptions surrounding these people — our fellow humans, our fellow friends.

It may very well be up to us to help become a voice for the voiceless and let their concerns be heard.

Issues on refugees and asylum seekers are far more extensive and complex than what is covered within this article. To learn more about the issues, please head to the Refugee Council of Australia’s website or other dedicated web pages.

Freedom Stories will be screening exclusively for a limited time at Cinema Nova from July 23 – July 29. For more information, please visit the Cinema Nova’s website.